Louisa Catherine Johnson had two strikes against her when she married John Quincy Adams in London in 1797, namely, her husband and her mother-in-law. President John Adams and his wife Abigail had raised their son, John Quincy, to become President. With a brilliant mind and resume, John Quincy was probably the most qualified person who ever served as President; however, he was also a cold, demanding and inconsiderate husband.
Born in London, Louisa was the only foreign born First Lady. Abigail, with a nativist attitude, disapproved of Louisa because she was foreign born and urged her son to reconsider his marital decision. Louisa was bright, a talented musician and personable. She spent months campaigning for her husband’s Presidential election in 1824. With his election, he literally turned his back on her, isolating her from his life. He once said, “There is something in the very nature of mental abilities which seems to be unbecoming in a female.”
Louisa went into a deep depression, taking to her room for weeks at a time. Being First Lady signaled the most tragic period in her life. She wrote that she was “a prisoner in my own house” and that her “entire solitude was unbearable.” She ate chocolates obsessively. She began writing plays, describing the husband as an egotist who repressed his wife. She began her autobiography, calling it “Adventures of a Nobody.”
In 1828, at her husband’s request, Louisa campaigned for her husband’s re-election. She gathered significant support in several states, urging him that he could win if only he would get out and campaign. John Quincy paid dearly for not listening to Louisa as he lost to Andrew Jackson. Louisa, now spared the humiliation as First Lady, began to emerge from her shell. In 1829, George Washington Adams, a Boston lawyer and the eldest of the three Adams sons, received a stern letter from his father requesting his immediate presence to discuss his wasted lifestyle, including running up debts and getting a girl pregnant. The depressed son boarded a streamer bound for New York and committed suicide. John Quincy, in his grief and guilt, suddenly turned to Louisa for consolation.
Louisa began to find her inner strength, dedicating her life to fight for freedom for slaves, as well as women’s rights. It was Louisa who urged her husband to represent the slaves who landed in New England and sought their freedom. John Quincy argued brilliantly and successfully before the Supreme Court in freeing the slaves in the Amistad Case. It was during his second career, as our only former president to serve in Congress, that he earned the nickname of Old Man Eloquent.